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Thursday, 11 July 2013 12:50

The next generation of mobile technology has been cancelled


Despite the wide use, and abuse, of the term 5G for future mobile broadband technologies, there is a growing consensus that the quantum leaps in technology that have characterised generations one to four of cellular mobile telephony over the last 40 years won't continue.

A few months ago I had a go in this column at an announcement by Samsung of a 'breakthrough' development in '5G', describing it as "5G baloney more like." Nevertheless, as a PR exercise it was, and remains, spectacularly successful. Google '5G and 'mobile' and you'll get the impression that Samsung is the fount of all wisdom on 5G: almost every one of the top 100 hits related to Samsung and its 'breakthrough'.

However Ericsson has now come out with a white paper that takes a much less sanguine position on future breakthroughs in mobile technology. 5G, it says, is not about replacing existing technologies as 2G, 3G, and now 4G (LTE) are doing to their predecessors - and LTE is growing at a rate that is unprecedented - but about complementing them with new radio access technologies for specific scenarios and use cases.

"The 5G solution will not consist of a single technology but rather an integrated combination of radio-access technologies," Ericsson says. "This includes existing mobile-broadband technologies such as HSPA and LTE that will continue to evolve and will provide the backbone of the overall radio-access solution beyond 2020. But it also includes new complementary radio-access technologies for specific use cases.

"Smart antennas, expanded spectrum – including higher frequencies – and improved coordination between base stations will all be crucial to fulfilling the requirements of the future. Additionally mobile-broadband technologies will expand into new deployment scenarios, such as ultra-dense deployments, and new use cases such as different kinds of machine-type communication."

That's not to say that this '5G-free' scenario will see any slowdown in the spectacular increases in performance that each preceding generation has ushered in. Ericsson says that, beyond 2020, wireless communication systems will need to support more than 1,000 times today's traffic volume and "50 or perhaps even 500 billion connected devices," and it expects these targets to be achieved.

The key takeaways from the Ericsson whitepaper, and other documents I have perused, are that '5G' wireless will offer very high bandwidth for those users and applications that want or need it, that it will support billions of devices, and that it will be pervasive.

Pervasiveness, perhaps, is the quality more than any other that will differentiate 5G from any lower numbered Gs. As the head of Virgin Media's (UK) business unit was reported saying, it will mean that manufacturers of any item of electrical equipment will be able include communications capability confident that the device will be able to communicate with them and they with it for its entire lifespan.

What seems to be missing from most of the 5G scenarios I could find is any contemplation of the impact this shift from the monolithic mobile networks of today to multi-technology hybrid networks will have on the monoliths that own those networks - the mobile network operators.


Today they are, by and large, as vertically integrated as their networks. Resellers of mobile services, MVNOs, only account for a small percentage of the market and devices that come with mobile connectivity bundled in - outside of the industrial M2M market - like the Kindle, are few. In a future where there are multiple network technologies it's possible that providers that are network technology agnostic could emerge to disintermediate the owners of today's mobile networks, or that significant players based on the newer technologies could emerge.

Cisco - which has zero footprint in the cellular radio infrastructure market but a huge presence in the Wi-Fi infrastructure market - likes the idea of Wi-Fi only operators emerging as a significant market force.

In a paper issued in February "The Future of Mobile Networks' Stuart Taylor form the Service Provider Practice of the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group argued that there is a unique opportunity to build a new mobile network with Wi-Fi at its core.

Such an operator, he suggests, would not be a direct competitor to existing mobile operators, a move that would be "strategic suicide". It would instead "provide services to new markets such as Wi-Fi-centric devices, and could become an extension of existing business models such as 'TV Everywhere' for current video providers."

To some extent, that model has been tried - remember all those players that emerged promising to rollout networks of hundreds of charge by the hour Wi-Fi hot spots in cafes etc?

The mark two version might have more chance of success. So too might other models. Every advance in technology creates opportunities for new players and is a source of potential threat to incumbents. 5G might just be the first technology shift in five generations to do that to mobile network operators.

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